Review: The Outgoing Tide (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

Northlight creates a compassionate, witty world premiere

     
     

John Mahoney (Gunner), Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed (Peg)

  
Northlight Theatre presents
   
   
The Outgoing Tide
   
Written by Bruce Graham
Directed by BJ Jones
at North Shore Center the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $30-$50  |  more info 

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The shock of a loved one turning into a bewildered stranger—that’s the curse of Alzheimer’s Disease. Like the wrath of God, in this new work it’s visited on a small family living on the shore of the Chesapeake. But it could easily be any in the audience. That’s one reason The Outgoing Tide, an effective world premiere from Northlight Theatre, is as much a rehearsal for the future as theater can offer. The other is the utter honesty of BJ Jones casting and staging.

John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).Author Bruce Graham compassionately and wittily considers his play’s ongoing crisis—a father’s senility as a permanent impairment—from all sides. It’s wrenching to hear as confident an actor as John Mahoney, Chicago icon, suddenly descend into the depths of a terminal brain malfunction. His Gunner Concannon is a shanty-Irish success, a blue-collar trucker used to getting his way. But time is taking a daily toll: his tested but true wife Peg (down-to-earth Rondi Reed) faces “a new battle every day.” Gunner repeats himself, can’t remember basic information, recalls the past perfectly but forgets yesterday or who he’s with, and wanders away, helpless to return.

But, unlike Alzheimer patients in the later stages, Gunner can feel and taste his diminishing returns, enough to propose a terrifying idea to Peg and his son Jack (himself facing two other family crises, divorce and alienation from his teenage son). Like Willie Loman before him, Gunner will arrange an accident. The $2.4 million payout from this self-administered euthanasia will free himself from dependency and diapers in a hateful hospice, give Peg the comfortable future that that expense would have negated, and enable Gunner to open the restaurant he’s always dreamed of. But it has to be tomorrow because the future’s not on Gunner’s side: With winter approaching, a boat heading out will soon stand out.

Much of the play deals with the denial and panic triggered by Gunner’s decision to take his boat out and plunge himself into the “outgoing tide.” Peg despairs that, with Gunner gone, she’ll have no one to care for, though Jack (Thomas J. Cox, looking as bewildered as you’d expect) will need her even more now. Jack hates the thought that his dream depends on his dad’s death.

     
Rondi Reed (Peg) and John Mahoney (Gunner). Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and John Mahoney (Gunner).
Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed Peg). John Mahoney (Gunner). Rondi Reed (Peg) and in the background Thomas J. Cox (Jack) in Northlight Theatre's "The Outgoing Tide" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. Rondi Reed Peg) and Thomas J. Cox (Jack)

Clearly, this is no “On Golden Pond,” full of sentimental banter (“you old poop”) and analogies to lost loons. (It’s a lot more like Marsha Norman’s “’night, Mother,” where a suicide looms over, and finally finishes, the action.) There’s enough humor (what if a demented man, bent on murder-suicide, forgets to commit the second crime?) to leaven the loaf. The particulars of this beleaguered family are balanced against the universal plight that we’re all clocks fated to run down until we tick no longer. Flashbacks fill us in on a marriage that clearly grew from love into, well, whatever is left now.

Spry and game, Mahoney brings an energetic actor’s instincts to a part that doesn’t always need them. His sheer spryness somewhat blunts the seriousness of Gunner’s losing game, but it also makes his sudden losses of reality all the more wrenching. Reed exudes a feisty practicality that, alas, is useless in this family calamity. Cox depicts how cherished memories turn toxic when their source is no longer the person you grew up with.

Yes, The Outgoing Tide is definitely a promissory note for crises to come. See it now before the tide comes back.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thomas J. Cox (Jack), John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).

Performances: through June 19th, with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays 2:30 and 7:00pm. (some variations may occur – check website for exact performance info)  Tickets: Tickets are $40-$50, and can be purchased by phone (847-673-6300) or online at www.northlight.org. Location: All performances take place at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie (map).

     
     

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Review: Sense and Sensibility (Northlight Theatre)

     
      

An enchanting happily-ever-after saga

  
  

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Northlight Theatre presents
  
Sense and Sensibility
  
Adapted and Directed by Jon Jory
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through April 27  |  tickets: $40-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One sister driven by passions.  One sister steering by intellect. Eighteenth century husband-shopping rips the heart with mind games.  Northlight Theatre presents the world-premiere of Sense and Sensibility from the book by Jane Austen.  The death of their father leaves the Dashwood sisters financially-strapped.  Without a proper dowry, marriage prospects dwindle.  Still, the sisters muse potential suitors.  Marianne falls quickly and hard for her dashing rescuer.  Elinor connects wittingly with  her sister-in-law’s brother.  Love gets complicated when ‘marrying for money‘ cashes in on the sisters‘ happiness.  Sense and Sensibility is love by the book…Austen style.

Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 008Jon Jory puts his heart and head into a complicated adaptation.  The Austen novel has a bounty of characters with complex lineages speaking in formal prose.  Directing the adaptation too, Jory devises a dynamic play boasting multiple love stories.  On a simplistic set (scenic designer Tom Burch), Jory smoothly and quickly moves in or out chairs, love seats, even a buffet table to show location changes.  (Kudos to stage manager Laura D. Glenn for the ever-shifting action cued up by a piece of furniture or article of clothing).  Jory orchestrates a page-turner pace with a mega-talented cast.

In the leads, these sisters are perfectly novel to the plot.  Helen Sadler (Marianne) is delightfully impulsive and lively.  Sadler punches up the humor with brutal assessments of people’s virtues.  Heidi Kettenring (Elinor) is lovely as the reserved sister.  In contrast to Sadler’s exaggerated drama, Kettenring contains her emotions with subtle nuisances:  clasped hands, half-smile, dead-pan delivery.  Kettenring delivers one of my favorite responses to an inquiry of her sister’s illness.  Kettenring dryly states, ‘she is a victim of expectations.’ Classic wit!  Their mother, Penny Slusher, is adorably maternal.  Slusher frets with a charming romantic simplicity.  Playing her sensibility contrast, Wendy Robie (Mrs. Jennings) is hilarious as the meddling wannabe marriage broker.  Robie zings delivering deliciously improper barbs without malice intent. 

     
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Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 012 Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 016

The bevy of men make the husband selection difficult.  Greg Matthew Anderson (Willoughby) is dashingly charismatic. Anderson pulls on the heart strings as a drunken scoundrel with a hint of remorse.  His opposite, Jay Whittaker (Colonel Brandon) is quiet, handsome dignity.  Whittaker’s non-emotional and abrupt reactions are amusing and endearing.  Understudying the part of Edward Ferrars, Derek Czaplewski does a splendid job as the awkward and honorable man of engagement.  V Craig Heidenreich (Sir John Middleton) is a hearty serving of humorous hospitality. The entire, ever-moving, excellent ensemble performs and schlepps props for a sublime illustration.      

Sense and Sensibility is an enchanting happily-ever-after story.  As a woman with a little of both, the sophisticated dialogue is intellectually riveting and the known outcome still made me weepy.     

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
    
  

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Sense and Sensibility continues through April 27th, with performances Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30pm, and Wednesdays at 1pm. Tickets are $40-$45, and can be purchased online or by calling 847-673-6300.  More info at www.northlight.org. Running time:  Two hours and thirty minutes with a fifteen minute intermission.

3 words: A newbie to Austen’s tale, Jasleen describes it with ‘dear sisterly love.’

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REVIEW: McMeekin Finds Out (Route 66 Theatre Company)

 

Did I mention we’re in Pittsburgh?

 

 Kate Buddeke, Blair Robertson, and Randy Steinmeyer

   
Route 66 Theatre presents
   
McMeekin Finds Out
   
Written by Scott T. Barsotti
Directed by Damon Kiely
at Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $25-$37   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I hate seeing a bad play. You walk into the theater full of hope and high on expectations. The play may start out okay: an intriguing opening, some snappy dialogue and characters that are brimming with potential. But by the intermission, you realize the mess you’ve gotten yourself into, so you reach for your car keys. But then you remember you’re a theatre critic, so you have to stay and see if this agonizingly, dead-on-arrival play miraculously gets any better. And, more often than not, it doesn’t. Now you’re out two hours of your time, plus you must set out on the task of panning someone else’s beloved creation, which, let me tell you, makes you feel like a total and utter schmuck.

Route 66 Theatre Company’s world premier of McMeekin Finds Out makes me feel like a schmuck. This play is so seriously flawed that I am amazed the collective of talented artists behind the production didn’t demand this thing incubate a bit longer before letting it go to term. Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly potential. But as it stands, this mess of a slapstick comedy is like seeing a mediocre improv show, where everything rests on a thrown-together goofy premise and where louder means funnier.

Randy Steinmeyer and Kate Buddeke 2 The play, written by Scott T. Barsotti, centers around a family in Pittsburgh. And Barsotti doesn’t let you forget for a minute where this play takes place. Mentions of the Steelers occur in every other sentence, and everyone possesses the standard Pittsburgh dialect, sprinkling their dialogue with words like “yinz.”

At the play’s opening, we witness the daughter Carla (Blair Robertson) getting on a guy at a house party. She’s drunk, and we can’t quite see the young man the way the couch is positioned. What we do know is that he’s immobilized somehow, possibly drunk or possibly tied up. In any case, she proceeds to have sex with him, which surprisingly serves as the basis of the play’s entire plot. That’s because, upon arriving home the next morning, Carla confesses to her parents, Guy (Randy Steinmeyer) and Pam (Kate Buddeke), that she may have raped the young man, since technically he didn’t consent.

That’s about it. There’s really not much more to this play. Oh sure, Guy and Pam are both laid up due to a car accident that was Guy’s fault. Guy now wears casts on both arms, which may have destroyed his career in construction. And Pam’s leg cast has made it impossible for her to continue being a chef for the time being. But Guy’s underlying guilt over the accident and Pam’s resentment are barely touched upon. Instead, the question of whether Carla raped a boy and what is the family to do dominates every single moment.

And perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if we, the audience, hadn’t already seen exactly what happened within the first minutes of the play. We know that she took advantage of this boy. We know most of the circumstances. And so when characters continually say things like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened,” you want to yell, “We do!” and hope everyone just moves on to something more interesting.

Another issue I had with this play is that it’s just not funny. The humor, solely because of the subject matter, occasionally verges on edgy. But overall, most of the jokes are on par with sappy sitcom schlock.

For what it’s worth, much of the acting is solid. Steinmeyer is entertaining. His portrayal of Guy is as if you mashed Edith and Archie Bunker into one person. Likewise, Buddeke provides some much-needed understatement and realism to this otherwise over-the-top, harebrained play.

McMeekin Finds Out doesn’t know what it’s trying to say. It goes nowhere while being simultaneously all over the place. Worst of all, there’s no driving force that compels the audience to keep watching. Give this play a thorough rewrite or transform it into a brief one act and you may have something. Otherwise, the only thing you’ll find out is that you just sat through a bad play.

       
   
Rating: ★½
   
   

 Randy Steinmeyer and Kate Buddeke

 

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REVIEW: Low Down Dirty Blues (Northlight Theatre)

Cheer up with some low down blues

 Low Down Dirty Blues018

  
Northlight Theatre presents
   
Low Down Dirty Blues
   
Created by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman
Directed by
Randal Myler
Music direction by
Dan Wheetman
through July 3rd  | 
tickets: $39-$54  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘How can I be over the hill if I never made it to the top?’ Life musings are chatted and sang about afterhours at a Chicago South Side nightclub… interestingly, it’s a Saturday afternoon in Skokie. Northlight Theatre presents the world premiere of Low Down Dirty Blues at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Created and directed by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, Low Down Dirty Blues is a show  Gergory (2940) vfeaturing a collection of blues songs intermingled with life stories from the singers. Big Mama’s, a fictional nighttime hotspot, has been created onstage with the authentic look that transports the audience from northern suburbs to the urban South Side.

Low Down Dirty Blues is a tribute to a passing musical genre. The performers sing the blues about singing the blues. Originating in the 1920’s, blues songs were a voice for the African American culture during an oppressive time. Over the decades, the musical stylings have been glamorized and made famous by Chicago. Without the severity of segregation and discrimination conditions, the blues have become more playful – no matter what the political or social climate is, men and women will always be trying to get their mojo working. Low Down… is an evening of sultry, sexy fun that makes you ‘Shake Your Money Maker.’

‘My Stove’s in Good Condition” is one of many song titles that would appear mundane. But the way Felicia P. Fields sings about cleaning her range, puts household appliances on the aphrodisiac list. The sexual innuendos are belted out with soul and sass. Fields uses her powerful voice to warn men ‘Don’t Jump My Pony’ if you don’t know how to ride. She’s hilarious! In the very familiar ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ Fields transitions from her bawdy self to melancholy with sweet sadness. The songs are relationship advice with good natured wisdom interspersed with memories of bad times. The charming Mississippi Charles Bevel sings mischievously about where to put his jelly and later poignantly about ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ Gregory Porter shares personal despair singing ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ as the target of female angst. Later, his rendition of ‘Change is Gonna Come’ is gospel-quality inspirational. Leading the magnificent singing quartet, Sandra Reaves-Phillips IS Big Mama. Playing an aged singer and nightclub owner, Reaves-Phillips holds court perched on a pile of pillows. From ‘They Call Me Big Mama’ to ‘Lord, I Tried’, Reaves-Phillips has the legendary blues voice. It’s deep and rich with crackly hints of a smoky lifestyle. Throughout the show, Reaves-Phillips makes side comments, slaps her ass and drinks from a flask. She is pure Blues Club Diva!

 

Gregory, Mississippi (front) h Felicia P. Fields, v

Under the musical direction of Dan Wheetman, the singing is sensational. Under the direction of Randal Myler, the performers share personal strife glimpses between songs. A lesson in blues history is mingled in with humor. There is a great joke about a Chicago’s tourist definition of blues. For a genre established in segregation, these blues aren’t your grandma’s depression. Low Down Dirty Blues is high up sexy fun!

SIDEBAR: Two trains, two busses, an hour commute to get to Skokie to hear Chicago Blues. It’s ironic and sad. I live a ten minute cab ride from Kingston Mines. Low Down Dirty Blues reminded me how much I enjoy this type of music. If I don’t start going to blues clubs again, ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine.’

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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Running Time: Eighty minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: The Island (Remy Bumppo)

Friendship comes first in revival of Fugard prison drama

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Remy Bumppo presents:

The Island

by Athol Fugard
directed by James Bohnen
through March 7th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Athol Fugard’s The Island begins with prisoners Winston (Kamal Angelo Bolden) and John (La Shawn Banks) shoveling sand into wheelbarrows on opposite sides of the stage. When each prisoner’s wheelbarrow is full, he empties it into the other man’s freshly dug pit, returns to his original position, and then repeats the entire process. their only redemption the foreman’s whistle. This opening sequence is monotonous and continues for nearly ten minues, but is extremely effective in showing how South Africa’s Robben Island prison exhausted its population into complacency. When not being mentally and physically tortured, the two cell mates rehearse a stripped-down Antigone for the prison’s talent show, with Winston as Antigone, much to his disdain, and John as her dominating uncle Creon.

The relationship between these two men is the anchor of the production, directed by James Bohnen, and Banks brings a mature, caring energy to the stage that nurtures Bolden’s more brutish Winston. What this season’s FugardChicago mini-festival – which includes Timeline Theatre‘s Master Harold…and the Boys  (currently playing) and Court Theatre‘s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (this past May) – has shown thus far is the playwright’s ability to develop beautiful friendships from the dreary circumstances of apartheid South Africa, and the two actors of The Island capture the complicated dynamics of their characters’ friendship.

The Island, like most of Fugard’s work, is heavy on political commentary, and while the writing is intelligent and thought-provoking, the language often becomes very formal, too much like a reading of an essay rather than real human dialogue. During the performance of Antigone this feels appropriate, but feels out of place when it appears in the scenes of the two men speaking casually, and Fugard’s intellectual perception of prison ends up sacrificing much of the visceral pain seen in the opening in favor of bookish monologues that veer into heady territory.

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Athol Fugard is able to probe into the emotional damage inflicted by the prison system when John learns that his sentence has been reduced, joyous news that means an end to the bond that Winston and he have formed over the past two years. Bolden’s reaction is pitch-perfect, and the overwhelming sense of hope and relief shared by the two actors in the initial moments following the announcement is one of the show’s highlights. But as the painful reality of Winston’s life sentence begins to sink in, envious feelings become hostility, putting the duo’s production of Antigone at risk. As the men overcome their anguish and shame together, they reveal how friendship can heal the broken spirit, a theme so prevalent in the playwright’s work that it must be true.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Creative Team: Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, John Kami (playwrights), James Bohnen (Director), JR Lederie (Light Design), Tim Morrison (Set Design), Rachel Laritz (Costume Design), Victoria Delorio (Sound Design)

Cast: La Shawn Banks, Austin Talley, Kamal Angelo Bolden

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